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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Chennai feels like home again after India spinners demolish England to level series

Axar Patel made full use of favourable conditions to bag 5/60 while Ravichandran Ashwin finished with a match-haul of eight wickets apart from his classy fifth Test hundred with the bat.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Chennai |
Updated: February 16, 2021 8:23:42 pm
Axar Patel celebrating a wicket in the second Test against England. (BCCI)

Half an hour into the second session on Day 4, the curtain came down on the second Test. England went into the lunch break on 116/7 and there was little doubt how this match would end for the visitors.

India won by 317 runs to make the Chennai leg of the four-Test series 1-1. Axar Patel bagged a five-for on his Test debut. England had won the first match by 227 runs.

Once Rohit Sharma had set up the hosts with a magnificent 161 in the first innings on a Chepauk turner, England couldn’t help but wait for the inevitable. India have superior batsmen and far superior spinners than their opponents in these conditions. The ball turned from Day 1, making the toss less important.

A combined XI on such a typical Indian surface would see only two England players getting into the side – Joe Root and Ben Stokes. Jos Buttler returned home after the first Test, while James Anderson was rested. So they weren’t considered. To start with the respective opening partnerships – Rohit and Shubman Gill tower way over their English counterparts, Dom Sibley and Rory Burns. Rohit is a world-class batsman in subcontinental conditions, while Gill is the most talented young Indian batsman, who has grown up playing on such surfaces.

The Indian middle-order comprising Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, and down to Rishabh Pant, comfortably trumps their English equivalent despite Root’s presence.

The England captain is a modern-day great in his own right and even on the fourth day, standing on the burning deck, he showed top application before getting out to a well-nigh unplayable delivery from Axar.

But overall, Root, also, was uncertain in his approach and allowed the conditions to get the better of him. Compare this with Kohli, who after being dismissed for a duck in the first innings, trying to play a cover drive, mostly avoided the shot at the second dig. He scored a masterful 62. The India captain rather played on-drives against the turn, when the pitch had deteriorated even further.

Coming to the respective spin departments, Moeen probably would be the first to admit that he is no match for Ashwin on subcontinental pitches, his 189 Test wickets notwithstanding. Ashwin is just a different kettle of fish here, so good that he could bowl a straight ball on a rank turner to nutmeg Dan Lawrence on Tuesday. Rishabh Pant effected a terrific stumping.

Axar, in his first Test, expectedly bowled a lot better than his direct rival – England’s left-arm spinner Jack Leach. Speed was important on this deck and Axar bowled well into the 90s (kph). For Leach, after playing his entire formative cricket at Taunton and in his first tour of India, it was too big an ask to adjust his bowling adequately as per the pitch conditions.

Ashwin and Axar combined took 15 wickets in this game, conceding 196 runs. Kuldeep Yadav also chipped in with a couple of wickets in the second innings. In comparison, Ali and Leach accounted for 14 scalps by giving away 404 runs. Needless to say, the England spinners faced a far greater degree of difficulty. Similar deliveries from Indian tweakers that made England batsmen’s footwork iffy, Rohit and Kohli just stood and walloped. The tourists also could have avoided sweeping Axar, for he is a difficult bowler to play the shot due to the extra bounce he extracts from the surface.

The pink equation

A bird’s-eye view of India’s reserve players’ practice from the TNCA Club balcony confirmed that the team’s focus has shifted to the third Test in Ahmedabad, a pink-ball affair under lights from February 24. Hardik Pandya was batting in the nets against the pink ball. After the match, Pandya, along with Pujara, came to the centre square at Chepauk to have another pink-ball batting stint. This is a series with a difference.

Usually, in home conditions, India are unstoppable once they get the momentum. In 2016, after England had finished the first Test at Rajkot stronger, the hosts bounced back on a Vizag turner to win the second and ended up winning the five-match series 4-0. Spin-punch did the job. But pink-ball Tests bring fast bowlers into prominence. Because of the extra coat of lacquer, pink ball requires live grass on the surface.

At Adelaide Oval, 11mm grass is routine. At Eden Gardens, the venue that hosted India’s first-ever pink-ball Test in November 2019, curator Sujan Mukherjee had left 6mm live grass on the strip. Extra coat of lacquer means more swing. Grass on the pitch means lateral movement off the seam. Then there’s the twilight period, when batsmen face difficulty to pick the ball.

So England have the liberty to brush off the defeat and start afresh. The conditions for the third Test – the first at the new Motera Stadium – are expected to be more akin to the Blighty than the subcontinent. And when pacers are at the forefront, it becomes a battle of equals.

EXPLAINED | Why England can’t blame Chepauk pitch for Test loss

A lot is at stake in the third Test. India need to win this series 2-1 at least to qualify for the ICC World Test Championship (WTC) final and whether they can get there, and also their chances of winning the ongoing series, will depend on their performance in the day-night Test. The equation will be entirely different, making turner-induced momentum all but redundant. Little wonder then that Pandya is apparently on the team management’s radar provided he is bowling-fit.

England’s pace attack is world-class in favourable conditions. James Anderson and Jofra Archer will return to the Playing XI. Stuart Broad will be there and in all likelihood the very impressive Olly Stone as well. To qualify for the WTC final, the tourists will have to win the series by a 3-1 margin; tough call given that a subcontinental pitch is set to return for the fourth Test. For England though, possibilities that the next game offers are good enough to keep the dressing-room morale high. For India, the series, and their WTC future, hinges on the next Test.

Ravichandran Ashwin was the last Indian spin bowler to achieve the feat, picking up 6-47 against the West Indies in 2011-12.

Ashwin took 3/53 in the second innings in this match and finished with a match haul of eight wickets as well as a century in the Indian second innings.

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